Okay, so, as you probably know, I’ve been a fan of Sharon Shinn’s books for a long time. Wrapt in Crystal is the last of her new-to-me books. I only realized it existed when I wrote this post a year or two ago and therefore looked up her complete oeuvre. Of course I picked up a copy at once, but I only just read it last week. I haven’t been reading a lot of new-to-me fiction lately, but this past week or ten days I’ve finally made some (minimal) progress in reading paper books off my TBR pile. Wow, do I ever prefer to read on my phone or Kindle. Nevertheless, I do have a lot of books on the physical TBR pile and I would like to see that number decline this year, and since I’m (almost) guaranteed to like anything by Sharon Shinn, I brought Wrapt in Crystal upstairs and finally read it.
Well, let me say, this story was a surprise in several ways.
You may have noticed that there’s a smallish number of authors with such a broad writing range that you can hardly believe they wrote [this book] as well as [that book]. Like, if you read Hunting Party by Elizabeth Moon – really good space opera novel, you should certainly read it – and then you read The Speed of Dark – absolutely stunning near-future SF novel that you MUST READ, GO GET IT NOW – then it’s just astonishing that Moon wrote them both. Or if you read the Newsflesh series by Myra Grant and then the InCryptid series by Seanan McGuire, it’s really hard to believe they’re actually by the same person.
I already knew Sharon Shinn has a broad range. But I would never have guessed she wrote Wrapt in Crystal if her name wasn’t on the cover. This is true even though certain elements do echo broad tendencies often seen in her other work.
What makes this novel different:
a) It’s not a romance novel. There is a romance, but it’s sort of … not unimportant, that’s not the right term … it’s sort of tucked behind everything else. If someone asked you for recommendations for fantasy romances, then a lot of Shinn’s novels would probably leap to mind, but you wouldn’t think of this novel. This is maybe the second book of Shinn’s where the romance is tucked completely back behind the main story.
b) It’s an SF murder mystery. It is very specifically a murder mystery. It follows mystery beats, not romance beats. It is also, by the way, a successful mystery in the sense that I had no idea who the murderer was until the protagonist figured it out.
The one way in which this story falls down as a murder mystery is that the reader doesn’t meet the murderer until right at the end, which is unusual in a mystery. The murderer does tie back to a character we meet earlier, but that isn’t as common a way of handling a mystery. For some time, after figuring out an important plot point, I was a bit concerned that a certain person might be the murderer because we met this person early and I could see that the story might move in that direction, but I didn’t want it to. I’m not entirely sure whether that was a deliberate red herring or not, but anyway, it wasn’t the kind of thing I thought Shinn would do, so I wasn’t very concerned. Except this story is rather different from her usual books, so … anyway, the story didn’t go that way and I’m glad.
b’) Update: It’s an SF Western! I pointed this post out to Sharon, who told me a little about what was in her mind when she wrote Wrapt in Crystal. Sharon said:
I consider Wrapt in Crystal a Western, and conceived of it a million years ago when I was reading a lot in the genre and seriously thought about writing a companion book that WAS a Western. So, you know…Drake is the hired gunslinger who is hired by the local townspeople to come clean out the band of rustlers, and he manages to achieve an uneasy alliance with the local sheriff. He gets semi-involved with the madam at the local brothel (Jovieve) and the independent cowgirl (Lise) but falls in love with the rancher’s reserved daughter (Laura). After a shootout at the end, he rides off into the sunset. But the rancher’s daughter comes to find him and he abandons his wandering ways
So that’s very interesting! I didn’t see the Western influence myself, but I can see it now that it’s been outlined so clearly.
c) It’s slow-paced. Without pausing to re-read everything else of Shinn’s and double-check this perception, Wrapt in Crystal seems very slow-paced in comparison to most of her other novels. This is true even though I would say that many of her other novels unfold at a leisurely pace. This one is slower.
d) It’s far, far more overtly philosophical. The world features one religion divided into two sects that seem very different on the surface, and we have a lot of conversations and discussions about religion as the story unfolds. This is the heart of the novel. Everything else is secondary. The romantic elements grow out of this religious element. So does the plot. So does the protagonist’s character arc, as he moves from being closed-off and cold to being much more emotionally open.
I really like how Shinn handled this central worldbuilding element. In fact, the way she handles this is one of the few obvious similarities between this book and some of her others. For example, in Heart of Gold, two very different societies are presented to the reader, each with very different gender values, but both societies are presented as good, or at least worthy – neither is presented as intrinsically morally inferior. Basically all the characters, of both societies, are trying to do good things even though they may be in conflict.
Wrapt in Crystal presents these two religious sects the same way, only even more so – both sects are good and worthy; they are not opposed to one another; each considers the other fundamentally a force for good in the world; the leaders of the two sects probably aren’t friends, but they are allies. If you want to read a story about religious fanatics preaching hatred against an opposed sect, this is not that story at all. Since I absolutely do not want to read a story about religious fanatics preaching hatred etc, this was excellent.
There are, as we all know, a handful of SF/Fantasy novels that present fictional religions in a way that feels real. Just a handful. Well, this is another in that small number. Religion is important in a lot of Shinn’s novels, but I think this is my favorite presentation of religion that she’s ever given us, and the one that feels most like a real religion.
Whatever else it may be, this story is also a novel about grief and recovery. I don’t want to end without providing what may be my favorite quote from the novel:
“You think that pain is a vacuum,” he said, taking her arm and making her face him again. “You think it sucks you dry and leaves you hollow and empty. You think it will take so much more time, so much more effort, to fill up that empty place again. You don’t think you can do it. But I tell you, pain is a vise. It clamps down on you. Everything you once were, everything you once had, is still inside you, small and squeezed and crushed flat. If you can break that vise, if you can move and stretch and open up again, all those things inside you will expand, will come back to life. You will feel everything again, once you give yourself room to feel.”
He is speaking to her, of course, but this is so clearly a moment when the protagonist is also speaking to himself. Except he’s been opening up again all through this novel, and she hasn’t yet moved toward that kind of recovery herself – or not very far – not enough to recognize it in herself.
Overall, Wrapt in Crystal isn’t going to be a comfort novel for me the way Shinn’s Elemental Blessings books are. I’m not sure how often I’ll re-read it. I wouldn’t reach for it if I had the flu, for example. But I admire this one more. It’s a more complex, less sweet, less easy story. I liked it a lot and I hereby recommend you all pick it up and give it a try if you’ve never happened to read it before.